Unrelenting thirst for medals brings more joy in blue

Glasgow’s Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg are held up by Leinster’s Rob Kearney and Scott Fardy during the Guinness PRO14 final at Celtic Park, Glasgow. Picture: Ramsey Cardy

Leo Cullen wasn’t the only Irish coach breathing a sigh of relief at the end of Saturday’s PRO14 final in Glasgow. 

With the World Cup looming, Joe Schmidt will also have been pleased to see a big proportion of the national squad rediscover what it takes to close out tight games and lift silverware.

It proved an unexpectedly troubled week for Cullen given the normally mild-spoken Leinster supremo managed to ruffle quite a lot of feathers in Glasgow with his comments on who the local soccer contingent might support in this decider.

With Leinster captain Johnny Sexton proclaiming that it would be 23 players against 40,000 locals, it appeared in advance as if Leinster were dipping into Munster’s old adage of creating a cause and a large chip on their shoulder even where one didn’t exist.

Leinster don’t pay much attention to what Munster do these days and, in the end, relied on what they do best to satisfy their unrelenting thirst for medals. 

Their record in domestic finals is very impressive and in this, their ninth league decider, a sixth title success showed once again just how difficult they are to beat.

That’s remarkable consistency in a tournament they so often use to broaden the base of their talent pool. 

This season they extended that model even further by exposing 57 different players to PRO14 action over the course of their 23 game campaign.

In the end, it was left to one of their most famous sons, Sean O’Brien, who didn’t see a minute of game time in this cracking final and appeared on the podium in his civvies, to lift the trophy. 

Tadhg Furlong, left, and Jonathan Sexton of Leinster celebrate in the locker room. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong, left, and Jonathan Sexton of Leinster celebrate in the locker room. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

If that was to be his only action on the evening, it remained in doubt right up to the final whistle with Glasgow testing Leinster’s resilience and willpower right to the death.

A try by reserve hooker Grant Stewart with five minutes remaining that narrowed the gap to three points raised the real possibility of extra-time. 

Given the challenging conditions, with heavy rain falling throughout, neither side fancied that proposition. 

Leinster’s ability to kill the clock and control possession meant Glasgow never got remotely near engineering a chance to create that scenario, not to mind the possibility of poaching a match-winning try.

Leinster’s ability to boss those remaining minutes through the power and ball retention skills of their forwards frustrated the life out of Glasgow who remained a massive threat with ball in hand throughout.

The difference between the sides is that Leinster know exactly what it takes to win and learned even more on that front from that soul-destroying defeat to Saracens in the Champions Cup final only two weeks earlier. 

It helped that, compared to that enthralling decider in Newcastle, Glasgow don’t have anything like the explosive ball carriers to stress the gain line that Saracens brought to St. James’ Park.

While they did manage to score two tries, one while they were down to 14 men, Leinster’s defence was outstanding throughout and really frustrated a superb Glasgow attacking machine that regularly finds line breaks in the tightest of spaces. 

Warriors’ outstanding New Zealand coach Dave Rennie’s admission in advance that quick ball is essential to the free-flowing, wide game they favour was an open invitation to the Leinster back row to come and get them. 

With referee Nigel Owens also keen on creating more ball in play time, it amounted to an unsolicited plea from coach to referee to police Leinster at the breakdown.

Despite that, Leinster backed themselves to compete with their usual vigour at this key phase and in contact where, once again, the back row of Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan excelled, crucially, without falling foul of Owens.

Add to that potent mix, the indefatigable work rate of James Ryan and Scott Fardy in the second row and you have an outstanding mix of honest endeavor matched with technical excellence. 

To only concede four penalties over 80 minutes, in extremely testing conditions, was a credit to their game awareness and discipline.

It also helped their cause that Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw complemented the tireless work of the forwards by manufacturing a number of key turnovers through copybook execution of the choke tackle which

frustrated Glasgow on numerous occasions.

Leinster enjoyed a few key breaks also, not least in responding to Glasgow’s morale-boosting opening try from No 8 Matt Fagerson by scoring one of their own within 50 seconds of that score when Garry Ringrose pounced on a great block down of Stuart Hogg’s clearance kick, directly off the restart by Luke McGrath, to touch down. 

Glasgow couldn’t believe it. All their hard work, undone in a flash.

Even more damaging to their cause was the decision of Owens to penalise a dangerous aerial challenge on Hogg, by his opposite number Rob Kearney, with a yellow card. It could so easily have been red.

The deciding factor for Owens was that Hogg landed on his shoulder as opposed to his neck or head. I have always felt that this is a ridiculous means of adjudicating on such issues. 

The fact that Hogg was forced from the field for a head injury assessment and never returned meant Glasgow lost their most potent attacking weapon for 14 minutes of action in the final quarter. Leinster only lost Kearney for ten.

With Hogg appearing in Warriors colours for the last time - he joins Exeter Chiefs in the Premiership after the World Cup - the end was even more painful for a player who has contributed so many moments of class and creativity to Scottish rugby.

Those two issues aside, Leinster were deserving winners. 

The character the players have shown since the painful defeat to Saracens in rising to the challenge against the best other two sides in the Guinness PRO14, Glasgow and Munster, and defeating both in the space of eight days, augurs well for the future.

While their lineout maul wasn’t quite as efficient in the absence of Devin Toner, their scrum ground out a notable advantage at key moments. 

However, as in the Champions Cup final, their bench made little or no impact. 

They will get away with that at domestic level but, at the top end in Europe, some of their emerging talent still have a road to travel.

With O’Brien departing for London Irish and doubts surrounding Kearney’s future in blue, Sexton, Toner and the excellent Cian Healy are the last remaining links to the Leinster squad that made the big breakthrough when winning a first Heineken Cup a decade ago now.

That said the future is bright with a large core of Saturday’s winning combination still in their mid-20’s and three trophies to their names over the last two season’s alone. 

What their Munster counterparts would give for one.

Leinster’s success will be warmly welcomed by Schmidt in that it finishes the season off on a positive note in what has proved a challenging 2019 to date after the unprecedented successes at provincial and international level last year.

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